It’s been nearly twenty years since I first set foot on the White House lawn. In these days before 9/11 it wasn’t difficult to get tickets to visit and so this was one of the first items my family and I crossed off our bucket list when we first moved from California to Maryland in 1998. Of this first milestone visit my memories are incomplete – they come back in scattered images and sounds– nothing concrete enough that forms a cohesive narrative.
I do remember more clearly, however, a morning spent on the White House lawn a few years later at the Easter Egg Roll, an event my family and I had the honor of attending one Spring thanks to a sponsorship opportunity from my dad’s work. At age 11 I was too old to participate in the famed rolling of eggs across the dewy grass of the South Lawn, and too young to join my parents in the blue room and shake hands with Hilary Clinton.
I was the perfect age however to feel the weight of what a privilege it was just to be at the White House standing in a pink dress and white stockings on the lawn of such a place steeped in history.
On this day, like so many others I spent with my sister and brother touring Washington D.C. or other historical sights throughout the country, my mom used the excitement of our surroundings to teach us about traditions and history. I remember feeling the reverence and honor behind the United States of America like never before. The weight of that feeling was so profound I left the White House moved by the knowledge that my country’s great history had paved the road for me to be who ever it was I dreamed of being.
Later today the White House Lawn will fill our television screens – and Facebook feeds – as a man who represents the exact opposite of everything my mother taught me our country stands for makes this place of prestige his home and begins four years in office.
Like many of you out there, this breaks my heart.
Ten years ago Barack Obama wrote that Americans are dogged in an optimism he called “the audacity of hope.”
But today hope is the opposite of what I feel. Apart from the hope that this new era passes with speed and peace, and that the founders of our country built a solid framework with such enduring strength that even a leader such as the one we are about to witness will not be able to alter the integrity of our freedoms, there’s not much hope to cling to right now in the notion of the United States.
In his last press conference as President Obama said he is proud that his daughters are not cynical of the election results.
“They have not assumed because their side didn’t win or because some of the values that they care about don’t seem as if they were vindicated that automatically America has somehow rejected them or rejected their values,” he said.
Well I disagree. Politics aside, in voting in a man to our highest office who has continually made racist, misogynistic and hateful statements, I feel America has rejected my values.
But in his words about the importance of hope, I whole-heartedly agree with soon to be former President Obama. And so today I choose to look outward – back down the road through the broader world that I’ve been able to discover in large part thanks to the strength of my U.S. passport and privileges the economic prosperity of my country have granted me.
Because, headlines of hate and violence aside, from studying abroad in Australia to teaching English in Madrid to living in rainforest of Costa Rica, my experiences abroad have really only ever revealed a wealth of kindness. In truth the world is full of people who hold my values.
Lessons in Hope From the World
I’m in Morocco, on a dusty dirt road in the Atlas Mountains. As I begin a hike through the small town of Setti Fama I pass a local woman who is herding a pack of goats. There’s a baby goat in the herd and something in his soprano bleat unleashes a wave of enthusiasm inside me and I greet him with smiles and love. Though the woman has places to go, she stops for me, a stranger, and lets me spend a few moments in the sun holding her goat.
I’m in Italy, on a ferry that crosses azure waters bound to Sorrento. After spending the day desperately lost on the Island of Ischia, my hair is matted from humid sun, my muscles are sore from trekking the steep hills and my wallet is empty after spending the last of my euros on a cab ride back to the ferry terminal. I mistakenly press a wrong button on my camera and all my photos are deleted, putting the corker on my misery. A British couple nearby witnesses my sadness and strike up a conversation. The lull of their English breaks through my culture shock and assuages my soul; they pay for a taxi to take me back to my backpackers accommodation and assuage my fatigue.
I’m in Papua New Guinea, on a speed boat charting through the waters near Fisherman’s Island, a small dot of a place off the coast of Port Moresby. The boat is full of children. Though they’ve only met me moments before they press into me as we jet up and down over the turquoise sea and press their hands into my own. When we land on an open stretch of sand we jump out and run across the warm sand, chasing a soccer ball, breathing in fresh, God-given air and erupting into pearls of laughter.
I’m in Chile and it’s rush hour in Santiago, and I’m three miles away from the site of my next meeting. I’ve used a spare window of time on a business trip to slip away from the hotel and explore the streets of Chile’s capital city and my decision is about to cost me. The streets have filled up with traffic and I’m told it will take more than an hour to get back to my hotel. I cannot find a taxi in the stream of cars and so I enter a bank and ask the teller where to go. She shouts at me that I am not to take a taxi but venture by metro instead. Though I’m nervous to navigate a foreign metro, she gives me directions written with such detail I will not get lost, stated with such authority I know to trust her plan. Her scribbled note leads me back to the hotel for less than a dollar and under twenty minutes.
I’m in the Australian Outback and evening has fallen. I find myself alone in the darkness, making out the edges of majestic Uluru. The purity of the air and silence fills me with gratitude and I drop down to my knees in red sand. Tears stream down my face as I am overtaken by the wonder that my path has led me, a dusty dreamer from California, to this sacred desert.
And finally, I’m in Cuba, sipping fresh mojitos with three staff members at Havana’s iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba. We’re surrounded by history in the Salon de la Fama, a hall of fame that showcases photographs of all the famous guests who have stayed here over the years, decade by decade.
Following a tour of the iconic property, sitting in such an idyllic setting, I ask my new amigos how they feel about the restored diplomatic relations between their country and mine.
Fidelito, the most serious of the group speaks first, telling me with great pride the benefits their revolution brought to their people – from universal health care and free education to general equality and improved race relations.
He then details the grand injustices the United States has inflicted on Cuba, and hearing the hurt in his voice pains me, especially when he tells me that every year since 1962 my country has voted to renew the Embargo and further isolate them.
“The United States has never respected us,” he says, words laced with anger.
I hang my head in shame at the actions of my country and apologize. As I express my sorrow his demeanor changes, furrowed brows are replaced with a sympathetic smile.
“We hold no grudges against you,” he says. “Politics are not people. People are the pueblo.”
As he says these words I know that leaders in his country have also done things that don’t make Cuba proud, things that are far worse than anything we will witness with the new administration. The world is full of leaders who carry out actions that don’t reflect the values of ordinary people like him and me, people of the pueblos.
“In Cuba we are optimistic,” he says. “Cubans change things that are sad and painful into something good. Vuelta la pagina y seguir.”